What Foxy Brown remembers most about the morning of May 23 is the eerie quiet. The night before, the rapper had fallen asleep with the television blaring, but when she got up, no sound seemed to be coming from it. "I pressed the volume to maybe 60. Nothing," says Brown. "I ran outside to my truck and honked the horn. Nothing. I ran back inside and dialed a number on the phone. Nothing. Then I started breaking down in tears and screaming and I couldn't even hear myself scream. That's when I knew there was a problem."

Three days later Brown was diagnosed with severe sudden sensorineural hearing loss, a little-understood condition that affects one in 10,000 people without warning, often as the result of a viral infection. Most suffer loss in only one ear and, when treated early, the condition can be reversible. But Brown has lost her hearing in both ears and has, so far, not responded well to treatment. "Her case is severe," says Dr. Anil Lalwani, an otologist whom Brown has consulted. "In only 1 or 2 percent of the cases are both ears affected." For months Brown tried to hide the loss, hoping medication and surgery might restore it. Now, as she weighs further options, she is speaking out for the first time. "I have been deaf for four months," says the 26-year-old Brown, whose real name is Inga Marchand. She talked to PEOPLE's Sharon Cotliar about her regret that she didn't act sooner when she felt her hearing "slipping away" and her hope that speaking out will help others.

There were signs for a few days before. My phone would be ringing and my Blackberry would be going off and people would be "Yo, Foxy, your Blackberry." And I'd hear it. It would be a delayed reaction but I'd still hear it. One day I was in the studio, putting the finishing touches on my fourth album, Black Roses, and my friend [and Def Jam Records president] Jay-Z walked in to approve the mix. As soon as he heard it he was like, "Yo, what's that? Does this sound normal to you, Inga?" I was like, "Of course it does. What do you mean?" Then he told me, "Baby Girl, we have a problem because this is ridiculously loud. I could never put this on the radio."

At first I just thought Jay was giving me a hard time. But the next day, he and I did an interview at a radio station. I remember conversing with the on-air personality. I was hearing her fine, but the minute I had to take callers, I couldn't hear them. I would say, "What are they saying?" It was embarrassing, because the people in the studio were looking at me like, "What do you mean? Don't you hear them? This is crazy loud." I said, "No, turn them up." But they couldn't turn it up any higher.

The next day, I was at a photo shoot. I was hearing the music fine. I said to myself, "Yesterday I wasn't hearing the phone, but today I'm hearing the music, so maybe this hearing loss is from a flight."

My mom's sister passed away the morning after the shoot, I remember hearing my mom and aunts downstairs in the living room, crying hysterically. And I got on the phone to call a couple of people. But when we went to the funeral parlor, I had a problem hearing the funeral director explaining the arrangements.

All along I'm feeling my hearing going slowly, but I'm thinking, God would never do this. This can never happen to me. I'm perfectly healthy, I'm 26 years old, I'm young and people just don't go deaf overnight.

The morning of the funeral, I woke up and I couldn't hear anything. Not the TV, not my car horn, not the dial tone on the phone. Of course I still had to go to the funeral. I sat in the front row and I couldn't hear the choir. Jay-Z was there and I said, "Jay, I think I'm deaf." He was like, "You can't be deaf." But I knew. I said, "Monday morning, we need to find a doctor."

The initial doctor I went to told me that if I had attacked the problem when I first realized my hearing was going, I probably would have been able to heal it immediately, but because I waited for about a week and continued to work and work and put pressure on my ear, that's what really damaged it.

He put me on a steroid called Prednisone and an antiviral medicine. I went home with the false hope that taking this medication would work.

After two weeks on the drugs, none of my hearing came back. I thought, I'm not telling anybody this. I'm going to keep this a secret. I'm going to try to go on normally. I'm going to pretend I can hear.

So for a few weeks I was reading lips. I was pretending that I can hear but I'm speaking really loudly so that didn't earn me any cool points. People would see me in the street and say, 'Foxy, we love you," and I wouldn't hear them, and they would think I was being disrespectful.

One of my closest friends is Naomi Campbell. She kept calling and saying "Call me," and instead I would e-mail her. Finally she was like, "Inga, what's wrong? Why don't you call me?" And I had to tell her I couldn't hear her over the phone. She freaked out. She said, "I'm coming to New York and we have to fix this." So she did some research and found me another specialist. I saw her June 8. The doctor told me I had severe damage to my ears and that I needed surgery right away. Her words to me were, "If you ever want to hear again, we need to do this surgery." I said, "On both ears?" She said yes.

Two days later I went to the hospital. The doctor wanted to go in and patch possible leaks in the inner ear that could have been the cause for the hearing loss. That was the last thing I had, that surgery. Before the surgery, my hearing was zero. After the surgery, it went up 20 percent. So at first I was thinking, "Wow, maybe next week it will be 40 percent and after that it will be 60." But it didn't work like that. It remained a little over 20 percent, which really wasn't that much of a difference.

So now my issue was, "What do I tell the record company? What do I tell Jay? What do I tell my fans?" I gotta tell you, when you go through a crisis, you really see who is there for you. Without mentioning any names, a lot of people that I thought would be there through thick and thin have completely disappeared. Because I couldn't hear, I was no longer useful to them. I couldn't put a record out. So it was basically like, "Okay, we will see you when you get better,"

But that only made me stronger. I decided when, they see me, I'm going to be the same Foxy, looking head to toe gorgeous. I'm going to try to be normal—even though every night I would cry myself to sleep. Every morning I would get up and try to look my best and try to feel my best.

I know God is working on me. I'm on a personal journey. I believe God wants to be the only voice I hear right now. Every day I pray for an answer. I don't want to come away from this not having learned God's lesson.

The doctors aren't saying that it's definite that I won't hear again. This is another reason I am speaking out. I believe there's a doctor somewhere—it could be on the outskirts of Wisconsin or Iowa—who could say, "I know exactly what this girl needs."

They say I may be able to hear with a [cochlear] implant. [An implant would give 'much more auditory information,' says Dr. Lalwani. 'It would let her use a telephone, and it maybe sufficient for her to get tonality back and be a musician.'] I know it will be an uphill battle. For now I am taking a break. But I definitely will be back. I still write. I write the best music when I'm going through pain. Sometimes I think, "What if I don't get my hearing back?" But then a second later I think God loves me. He will make a way. I know I will be all right. I'm not Foxy Brown right now. I'm Inga Marchand. I'm just a girl that wants to get better.